Since at least 2013, Philadelphia school superintendent William Hite told state officials his schools were conducting fire drills as required by law. However, an NBC10 investigation using the district’s own fire drill logs shows only 15 percent of Philadelphia public schools performed enough fire drills to comply with the fire code.
The NBC10 investigators also found state officials at the Department of Education did not audit the district’s certifications to ensure accuracy.
“I called the Department of Education myself to report that I had been sending them information about being in compliance when we clearly were not,” Hite told the NBC10 Investigators. “I have certified that we’re in compliance when we’re clearly not in compliance.”
Hite credited an NBC10 investigation which first revealed schools failing to follow the fire code for discovering the error.
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“After your report, obviously we were not in compliance,” he said.
The district’s signed certifications represent the third time the NBC10 Investigators discovered a government agency failed to see the School District of Philadelphia’s failure to follow fire code.
The district’s own records reveal some schools recorded fire drills on weekends and holidays when school wasn’t in session.
City building inspections show inspectors passed schools needing, “additional emergency evacuation drills.”
State law requires the Department of Education to collect the certifications but not to make sure they are accurate.
“I think it’s because the Department of Education is vastly underfunded and understaffed,” state representative James Roebuck said. “I certainly am going to talk to the secretary and to the department and see if they can get a higher level of urgency.”
Roebuck represents West Philadelphia and is the minority chairman of the House Education Committee.
Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera refused to talk about his department’s emergency drill oversight.
“The Department relies on schools to submit accurate information in a timely manner and is continuing to monitor the situation,” a statement provided by the department read. “Because we understand that local law enforcement may have been contacted, it would be inappropriate for the Department to comment further.”
A Department of Education spokesperson said the department believes it would be an issue for the Attorney General and Philadelphia District Attorney to investigate. According to state law it is a misdemeanor offense to falsely certify safety drills.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office would not confirm whether or not it is looking into the matter.
Superintendent Hite said law enforcement hasn’t contacted the school district.
Pennsylvania’s Auditor General said he is now investigating the accuracy of school safety certifications statewide.
“There are so many potential checkpoints on this that should have caught this that didn’t and it’s got to be fixed,” state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said. “The fact that they’re not doing it, that’s a major problem and it risks the health and safety of the kids and staff in the district.”
Superintendent Hite said he relies on his staff to verify the sometimes hundreds of documents that cross his desk in a given day. He said that includes the person who was supposed to check the fire drill logs.
“They’re no longer with the district,” Hite said.
The School District of Philadelphia plans to change its fire drill procedure for the upcoming school year. The School Reform Commission is set to vote on the plan before September 1.
Philadelphia Fire Drills By the Numbers:
- 10 - The number of fire drills schools are supposed to perform according to law
- 15 - The percentage of schools that follow fire the law
- 3 - The number of government agencies who failed to act